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More shootings, but hope in Johnston Square

So many of the old rowhouse neighborhoods of Baltimore have the following characteristics — one block good, next block bad; safe by day, violent by night; earnest homeowners here; apathetic renters there. Walk along enough of the side streets, especially on the east and west sides of town, and those contradictions are obvious.

Just look at the two blocks of Preston Street east of Greenmount Avenue, in Johnston Square.

In another of the overnight shootings that have marked Baltimore's summer, two men were gunned down there around 2 a.m. Friday; one of them died. The shootings occurred in the middle of the 700 block, and apparently on both sides of the street. By noon, the yellow tape that marked the crime scene had been ripped and left to wave in the summer breeze.

But look at the next block of Preston: Residents of beautifully rehabilitated rowhouses have lined their clean sidewalk with potted flowers. And just west of where the shootings took place, a few doors from the fluttering police tape, dusty men in hard hats sit on steps under shade trees to take their lunch after spending the morning renovating even more rowhouses.

Around the corner, along Greenmount, you find the new, $16 million Lillian Jones Apartments; the ribbon-cutting was July 1.

Ironic, paradoxical, confusing, bewildering — it's how many of these old neighborhoods look in the bright light of day. Johnston Square is one of those places where the contradictions seem so pronounced, yet a place that seems to be on the brink of tipping toward a positive future.

And not just because of new bricks and mortar.

Consider what happened on Memorial Day.

According to Terrell Williams, a community organizer, and Keith Hammond, a longtime Johnston Square resident, there was a standoff between drug dealers and neighbors, and the neighbors won. They reclaimed a piece of green — a large, square lawn behind the houses on Showell Court and Turpin Lane.

"It's a community space," Williams says, "but for a long time it was an open drug market."

To keep the dealers and buyers out, Williams, who works for Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), suggested installing iron gates on the three alley entrances to the park, and the community went along with the plan.

On Memorial Day some men tried to break the lock on one of the gates. A woman who lives on the court confronted them. "'What do you think you're doing? There are no drugs sold here anymore,'" Williams quoted the woman. "And then other neighbors came out and told the men to leave. One of the dealers said, 'Who's gonna make us?' And two of the men who live here said, 'We are.'

"What we're trying to do," Williams added as we walked with Hammond on Biddle Street, "is instill confidence in the people who live here so they can rely on one another and not just the police. And we're trying to build community leaders."

Hammond is one. He has lived in the neighborhood for 28 years. He said the dealers haven't been back to Showell Court or Turpin Lane. With a little work, and maybe some park benches, the yard that used to be a drug market could become a common for the people who live there.

There's a lot of this thinking going around right now.

Williams, who wears a blue BUILD T-shirt, started a cleanup campaign for Johnston Square, and Friday he had volunteers from church groups and nonprofits at work in five areas of the community.

Hammond and some neighborhood children cleared trees and weeds along Biddle Street. Their sweat revealed a handsome stone retaining wall that runs the length of the 800 block, across from Johnston Square Park, which is a wonderful green space with a baseball field and a grand view of East Baltimore.

A block away, Williams and a volunteer pulled debris and years of trash from a grassy lot near a church at Homewood Avenue and East Chase Street.

But the big project has been the reclamation of Ambrose Kennedy Park, at Eager Street and Harford Avenue. This is a city park that had become neglected and overgrown with weeds and trees. Williams says a woman's body was found last year behind a vacant house that adjoins the park.

Last week, volunteers — and not, conspicuously, city workers — took chain saws and rakes to the overgrowth, revealing a basketball court and a park entrance. They cleaned and painted the walls around the park's swimming pool, and children finished the walls with cheery, brightly-colored murals.

Behind the pool, there's a big, ugly asphalt pad — perhaps once a parking lot — begging to be turned into something green. Williams wants to break it up and plant trees. He's looking for some corporate support to keep the projects going.

I felt so much energy among the smiling, sweaty, hopeful volunteers in Johnston Square on Friday, under the noon sun, that I forgot for a moment why I had gone there — the homicide on East Preston Street.

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